BEIRUT: Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi Wednesday called on rival Lebanese leaders to resolve their differences and accelerate the formation of an “independent” government capable of confronting challenges that are threatening the crises-ridden country’s stability.
Sisi made the appeal during a meeting with Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri at Al-Ittihadia Palace in Cairo during which the two leaders discussed the latest developments and the situation in Lebanon and the region, and bilateral relations between the two countries, Hariri’s media office said in a statement.
Sisi’s plea was the latest by United Nations, foreign and Lebanese officials for the rapid formation of a new government eagerly awaited by the Lebanese to rescue them from multiple crises, including an unprecedented financial downturn that is threatening the Lebanese with poverty and an alarming surge in coronavirus infections and a high mortality rate.
Hariri’s visit to Cairo coincided with attempts to revive the stalled French initiative designed to lift Lebanon out of its worst economic and financial crunch since the 1975-90 Civil War and speed up the formation of a new government to deliver reforms badly needed to unlock billions of dollars in promised international aid to the cash-strapped country that is teetering on the verge of a total economic collapse.
After the Sisi-Hariri meeting that was also attended by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri and head of General Intelligence Abbas Kamel, the Egyptian presidency said in a statement: “The spokesman of the Egyptian presidency declared that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi affirmed Egypt’s keenness to primarily preserve the Lebanese state’s capabilities and to extricate Lebanon from the situation it is currently suffering from. To that end, Lebanese leaders must strive to uphold Lebanon’s national interests, settle disputes, and accelerate efforts to form an independent government capable of dealing with the current challenges, safeguarding the capabilities of the brotherly Lebanese people and ensuring national unity.”
Sisi also renewed Egypt's firm stance toward strengthening close ties of cooperation with Lebanon and expressed his sincere wishes to Hariri in forming the new government in a manner that “fulfills the aspirations of the brotherly Lebanese people in order to achieve security and stability,” the statement said.
Sisi stressed that Egypt was “ready to provide all forms of support and assistance to overcome the crises facing Lebanon, especially the repercussions of both the Beirut Port blast and the Covid-19 pandemic,” it added.
For his part, Hariri asserted “Lebanon's pride in the close historical relations between the two brotherly countries that are based on solidarity and fraternity.”
Hariri expressed his country’s appreciation of the Egyptian efforts in supporting Lebanon in all fields, particularly by providing all forms of aid and assistance to Lebanon in the wake of the devastating effects of the massive Aug. 4 explosion that pulverized Beirut Port.
He added that Egypt’s role as a fundamental pillar in preserving stability in Lebanon and the Arab region as a whole is also valued by Lebanon and praised the current Egyptian experience that is based on prioritizing economic and development success. Hariri considered Egypt a model to be emulated in the countries of the region.
Hariri also praised “Egypt's tireless and sincere efforts to mobilize international support for Lebanon at various levels in light of the continuing difficult challenges facing the Lebanese people, particularly at the political, economic and humanitarian levels,” the Egyptian presidency’s statement said.
The presidency spokesman stated that during the meeting, Sisi and Hariri discussed all aspects of the Lebanese political scene, the most prominent regional developments, as well as ways to enhance the current bilateral cooperation between the two brotherly countries.
Later, Hariri held talks separately with Shoukri and Arab League Secretary-General Ahmad Aboul Gheit focusing on regional developments and the Cabinet formation crisis in Lebanon.
In Beirut, a new call for the swift formation of a new government to rescue Lebanon was made Wednesday by Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai and US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea during their meeting in Bkirki.
Rai and Shea “underlined the need to form a new government as soon as possible to save Lebanon from its political, economic and social crises,” the state-run National News Agency reported.
Hariri's Cairo visit comes as his efforts since his designation on Oct. 22 to form a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to enact reforms outlined in the French initiative have hit a dead end following a deepening rift with President Michel Aoun.
The rift between Aoun and Hariri over the distribution of key ministries and naming of Christian ministers has stalled the formation of a new Cabinet and left the country without a fully functioning government for six months since then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s Cabinet resigned on Aug. 10 in the aftermath of the port blast, although it has been serving in a caretaker capacity.
However, hopes for breaking the Cabinet deadlock that has defied local mediation attempts for months soared after French President Emmanuel Macron announced last week that he planned to make a third visit to Lebanon. Macron also said that France's roadmap for resolving the deepening Lebanese crisis was still on the table.
A Lebanese political source said Hariri was expected to fly to Paris from Cairo, but he could not confirm whether he would meet Macron.
Commenting on the stepped up flurry of activity to break the Cabinet impasse, a senior political source told The Daily Star Wednesday: “There is hope that the government might be formed by the end of month.” The source said Hariri’s proposed Cabinet of 18 nonpartisan specialists would be divided as follows: six ministers to Aoun and the Free Patriotic Movement, six ministers to Hariri and allies, including Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt’s bloc, and the remaining six to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Hezbollah and their allies, thus ruling out the possibility of any party being granted veto power, or six ministers plus one.
In a statement breaking his long silence on the Cabinet formation deadlock, now in its sixth month, Berri said Monday a demand for veto power had blocked the formation of a new government, in what appeared to be an indirect jab at Aoun and his son-in-law, MP Gebran Bassil, who were reported to have insisted on such a demand.
In what appeared to be a response to Berri’s statement, the FPM’s parliamentary Strong Lebanon bloc denied that Aoun had demanded veto power in the next government.
“There is a programmed campaign to hold the president and the Strong Lebanon bloc responsible for obstructing the government formation by talking about a demand for a third of the ministers plus one. This is contrary to the truth, even though there is nothing to prevent it except that the supposed Cabinet is one of specialists, not politicians,” said a statement issued after the bloc’s electronic weekly meeting chaired by Bassil Tuesday.
Recalling that the bloc had offered not to participate in the next government in order to facilitate its formation, the statement said: “We categorically reject what the premier-designate’s team is spreading that the president’s role is to issue the Cabinet formation decree and not complete participation in the formation process with regard to the shape [of Cabinet], names [of ministers], portfolios and size.”